Spring teas are prized by tea lovers, and one pound can go for thousands of dollars. Saveur's Max Falkowitz tells Noelle Carter what makes these teas so unique and which ones you should try.
Noelle Carter: What are some characteristics of spring tea, and what distinguishes it from other types of tea?
Max Falkowitz: I think the part that people sometimes have trouble wrapping their heads around in the West is that tea isn't just a ground-up thing you put in a tea bag and put in your mug when you're feeling cold. It's a plant, and it has growing seasons, and it has varieties. It's subject to just as much terroir and climate variations and processing variations as coffee or wine or chocolate, or anything like that, and tea leaves grow year-round.
Some people pick them only twice a year, some three times a year, some year-round. But in the spring, the spring harvests are the first harvests of the year, and these are teas that have been sitting dormant for most of winter, and they've been sitting cold. Like with wine, wine grapes, or any other plant, the more a plant has to struggle to grow and to stay alive, the richer ... the more "oomph" it tends to have. These are plants that have struggled through the winter, and they're now finally shooting up.
The weather gets warm for them to just start shooting, and they just go for it. It's like ramps in the Northeast. It's like spring peas. It's like asparagus. Spring teas have all of that freshness.
NC: You've written how spring tea comes in limited quantities, and a pound of select harvest can run, literally, into the thousands of dollars. Why is it such a prized commodity?
MF: We're drastically underpaying for our tea in the U.S., in part because the really good stuff never gets to us. It stays within the Chinese and Japanese markets. In India and the Himalayas, it's a different story, but in China and Japan, tea isn't just something you drink. It's a cultural icon that has thousands of years of history and weight behind it. So, there is an inherent difference in the way the tea is valued in the eastern hemisphere than it is here, but particularly for spring teas.
We're talking about growing through March, through April. It's warmer than winter, but it's still not hot, and the colder it is, the slower a plant is going to grow. You have small yields, and small yields with very concentrated potency. You have a lot of nutrients stored up from over the winter, and they're growing in relatively small amounts. Everyone's excited about the spring harvest. There are even celebrations across China about the first spring rains, and teas that are picked before the first spring rains are considered the cream of the crop in some circles.
Some cynics would just say it's all marketing, and I don't think they're entirely wrong there, but there's definitely a cachet associated with these limited harvests. They're really a special thing.
NC: And you write how not every type of tea tastes best as a spring tea. What varieties are best suited to spring, and what would you recommend buying?
MF: All teas come from the same plant, and what makes them different is partially their terroir, partially the climate in which they grow, partially the season in which they grow, but a ton of it has to do with the way they're processed.
There are certain teas that are processed in ways that highlight certain characters of the tea leaf and subdue others. For instance, Japanese green teas are very crisp, aromatic, and bright. They have this lush, thick, bittersweet-ness that's not just grassy, but very herbaceous and piney.
That type of processing takes very well to the spring tea leaves that have all of this potency, and in Japan, there is a special first harvest called "shincha," which is really just a special name for a very general type of Japanese green tea called sencha, which some people might've heard of. Shincha is the very first harvest of the year that's packed and shipped right away for people to drink it as soon as possible.
In China, you have a bunch of green teas that can be more buttery, a little more sweet, and a little more pea-like, and there are some really famous Chinese green teas: Dragon Well, also called Longjing, that some people have heard of.
You also have, in India, first-flush Darjeelings, which are very famous in India, and it changes in character depending on the flush, or when they pick it. So, first-flush teas tend to be very piney and bright.
And over in Taiwan, where they're really famous for growing oolong teas, the really high-elevation-grown oolongs there that are really green and bright and herbaceous and buttery, those also take very well to spring harvests. In general, you want to go for teas that exemplify that aromatic quality.
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